This op-ed was published May 2 in the La Crosse [Wis.] Tribune and is reprinted with permission.
We all have our “stories.” Mine starts like this: born the eldest child of three to a middle-class Catholic family, classic overachiever, 16 years of education in private Catholic institutions, good-deed-doer extraordinaire.
How could anyone raised under these circumstances possibly stray from the flock?
It was easy being Catholic when I was a child. Basically, everyone around me was Catholic, so I never had to think outside of that framework. I never had to stress over what to wear to school — “the uniform.” I never had to discern for myself what was right and wrong. I was indoctrinated by the good sisters, who taught through example as well as by word. I was the epitome of “a good Catholic daughter,” always toeing the line and then some.
But the answers were never satisfying whenever I questioned the doctrine of my family’s faith. There was no personal connection to God or to any joy in my life. The older I got and the more complicated the answers to my inquiries became, the more I saw the flaws of blind faith.
I spent my college years feeling “melancholy” despite all the time I spent doing good deeds and attending uplifting college Masses. I was even involved with a community outreach program that helped the indigent with cleaning and winterizing their houses. It felt good at the time, but cynicism soon kicked in.
My divergent thoughts became more apparent in college and graduate school when I was no longer living under my parents’ roof. I studied “Major World Religions” and learned about ancient civilizations (like the Sumerians, the Aztecs and the Egyptians) and their belief systems. I was surprised at recurring themes like virgin births and incarnate gods. I noticed how more-recent religions built on more-ancient ones and how practices and cultures were absorbed by the conquerers.
Do you ever wonder why our ancestors stopped worshipping the Greek pantheon of gods? Was it because they no longer needed them to explain the natural occurrences of the world?
Criticized for being a supermarket Catholic (picking and choosing which dictates are negotiable, e.g., why is killing in the name of self-defense or war acceptable, but euthanasia, suicide and abortion unacceptable?), I finally said enough of the hypocrisy and stopped following rules that didn’t make sense.
I church-shopped for a bit, exploring various Christian faiths and even trying bible study. I was struck by how “into it” everyone else was, and how each denomination taught that they had the only way to God. I had learned that Catholicism was the “one true religion.” The irony grew as I found that some Christian denominations didn’t even consider Catholics “Christian.”
This illustrates how even one branch of religion has its dissenters. Religion continues to evolve (Christian Science, Mormonism, Scientology), yet many among us don’t recognize these newer faiths and don’t see that even our own faith is not that of our grandparents or ancestors further back.
In fact, if you had a serious discussion with someone from your faith community, you probably would find that they have a different understanding of the faith than you do.
All of these revelations got me wondering how some religions could be “right” while others were “wrong.” How could “all” of the Christian denominations be “the one true path to God?” Why couldn’t Buddhists go to heaven? Why do we decimate cultures to bring the “heathens” Christianity? Why are Catholic priests molesting their parishioners? Why are some “Christians” so non-Christian in everyday practice?
Many religions teach that the world’s problems are due to human failure or “sin,” but I believe that the real failure is in our reliance on supernatural forces to fix them. We could do much better being accountable to each other than to a god or the threat of eternal damnation.
Each day I strive to be true to myself by following the Ethic of Reciprocity (which at least 21 major world religions promote in some form and which predates the historical Jesus’ birth by at least 1,500 years), not because I seek a comfortable afterlife or praise in the present, but because it seems like the decent thing to do.
It feels right giving back to society, thereby advancing the human species. Just like many believers, I long for my children to grow up in a peaceful world that treats every living thing with respect. As we know, actions speak louder than words.
In the final analysis, it isn’t about whom, what or if we worship, but the love we have in our hearts.
Maria Runde is also an FFRF member.